Monday, May 11, 2015

Journalism rules that help in writing novels

I was delusional when I started writing novels. I figured that because I could write good stories for journalism that I could take those lessons and make an easy transition to being a novelist who specializes in fiction. That didn't work. I knew how to write plot, but I suffered when it came to building character. I am refining that part of my abilities.

Still, there are lessons from journalism that translate well to writing novels. Here are a few:

1. Be concise. A journalist takes a large volume of information and puts it into a compact package. Newspaper articles are 10 inches long, and a feature story can be 25 inches. Anything longer than that is rare. But that training in writing tight works well in crafting novels.

2. Edit tight. This is rule 1A in being concise. Even my journalism training didn't limit me to using just the words I needed to build a scene. I trimmed words and sentences that were extraneous on my first reading of my completed first draft, and I trimmed more in my reading of my revised manuscript. Be your own toughest critic.

3. Listen to good advice. I loved working for good supervisors who helped me write or edit better. Yes, I might rebel a bit at being told that I was doing it wrong, but I learned that good advice helped me improve. In the world of the novelist, the beta reader serves as that good supervisor. A good beta reader will tell you things you don't want to hear, but use that advice to your advantage. Also, I violate a "rule" of writing novels and have two family members among my beta readers. Both are very open in their criticism, and they don't hold back to "make me feel better." That's a good thing.

4. Make your subject accessible to readers. A good journalist can take a difficult subject and give it to a reader in an easily understandable package. The journalist avoids jargon and overly technical language. If that technical language is necessary to understand the subject matter, the journalist will explain it simply. Also, accessibility means making a tough or unique subject somehow touch a reader's sensitivities. I do that in my novels by centering on times and subjects that affect real people. I write about current times, or those in the near future. I also touch on subjects that the usual reader can relate to, things like depression, job loss, family tragedies, the pressures of growing into adulthood, etc. In a manner, I make real life the main antagonist. People can relate to that.

5. Be real. Journalism is the ability to tell real stories by using the facts. Sure, fiction is all made up, and it is more fun to write when I can control the world I am building. I also have learned to write honestly even in fiction. My protagonists have weaknesses, and I relate those in real situations. I won't publish what I have written, but one of my protagonists, Sean McNabb, is a bit of a jerk. No, make it that he is a considerable jerk. I make that plain in the first paragraph of the first chapter. I learned to craft a character that way from reading Stephen King's advice on what a novelist should do. Write what YOU want to write, not what you think the marketplace wants, or what won't jar people you know. I don't want to cheat my readers even in relating difficult subjects. That includes scenes involving violence or sex.

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